10 Things You Should Know about the Puritans
Despite Queen Elizabeth's efforts to unify the people of England (she ruled from 1558-1603), some did not think the spirit of the Reformation had gone far enough. The Puritans of the late 16th and early 17th centuries did not believe Elizabeth's attempt at compromise (Via Media) was sufficient. Her settlement “was based on the assumption that while Christian doctrine is found only in the Bible, such secondary matters as liturgy and Church organization may be imposed by the earthly Christian ruler” (Peter Toon, Puritans and Calvinism, 12).
Puritanism in its initial form, therefore, was the reaction of many Protestants to the proposed “middle ground” of Elizabeth. They were persuaded that the church needed to be purified of every last vestige of Roman Catholic influence. The use of vestments, the sign of the cross, confirmation, the use of such words as “priest” and “absolution”, kneeling for communion, god-parents in baptism, etc., were evidence to them of Rome's lingering influence. They called for the removal of these “rags of popery” and a return to biblical simplicity. They also felt the Prayer Book did not place sufficient emphasis on preaching of the Word. They also called for more strict application of church discipline.
In brief, “for their biblically-enlightened consciences the essential rock of offence was the large measure of continuity with the Roman Catholic past which persisted in the ministry and government of the church as well as in its liturgy and church furnishings” (Toon, 12).
So let’s look briefly at ten distinguishing theological features of the Puritans. For more information, I strongly recommend J. I. Packer’s classic treatment of the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990).
(1) The Puritans generally embraced a practical as well as theological commitment to Sola Scriptura. J. I. Packer explains:
“They were patient, thorough, and methodical in searching the Scriptures . . . And their knowledge was no mere theoretical orthodoxy. They sought to 'reduce to practice' (their own phrase) all that God taught them. They yoked their consciences to his word, disciplining themselves to bring all activities under the scrutiny of Scripture, and to demand a theological, as distinct from a merely pragmatic, justification for everything that they did” (29).
(2) The Puritans were characterized by a desire for a reformed and purified national church of England. Again, Packer's summation is helpful:
“The Puritan goal was to complete what England's Reformation began: to finish reshaping Anglican worship, to introduce effective church discipline into Anglican parishes, to establish righteousness in the political, domestic, and socio-economic fields, and to convert all Englishmen to a vigorous evangelical faith. Through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, and the sanctifying of all arts, sciences, and skills, England was to become a land of saints, a model and paragon of corporate godliness, and as such a means of blessing to the world. Such was the Puritan dream as it developed under Elizabeth, James, and Charles, and blossomed in the Interregnum, before it withered in the dark tunnel of persecution between 1660 (Restoration) and 1689 (Toleration)” (28-29).
(3) Most Puritans had a sense that they were living in the last days (they believed God's judgment was on the RCC). Thus they lived in expectation of the soon return of Christ. There were among the Puritans both pre- and post-millennialists.
(4) Virtually all Puritans placed a stress on conversion and personal piety. Edward Hindson, in Introduction to Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), writes:
“The genius of Puritan theologians was that they were preachers first and theological writers secondly. Their written works were mainly edited versions of their sermons. Because of their emphasis upon application of doctrine to the Christian life, their writings generally came to be designated as 'practical divinity.' They were not 'ivory-tower' theologians, but preachers of God's grace who were determined to meet the needs of men” (Hindson, 20).
(5) Yet another characteristic feature of their approach to the Christian life was their stress on the perpetual validity of the moral law of God (10 commandments especially). There is throughout virtually all Puritan literature a strong denunciation of any form of antinomianism.
(6) One expression of the former emphasis was their strict Sabbatarianism. The protestant reformers had focused on the typological and therefore temporary significance of the fourth commandment, according to which the Sabbath was a shadow that found its fulfillment and substance in the soul’s rest in Christ’s work. They still acknowledged the principle of one day’s physical rest in seven as a law of creation. The Puritans went a step further and insisted that the Sabbath was no less a part of the eternal and abiding moral law of God than were the other nine commandments. For them the Sabbath was to be studiously kept, not as a day of leisure or sloth or neglect, but as an opportunity to pursue the business of God’s kingdom. Careful preparation was to be made, both physically and spiritually, for its observance (e.g., go to bed early on Saturday so that maximal energy will be available for the spiritual labors of the Lord’s Day).
(7) As one would expect, there was among the Puritans a general adherence to Reformed Calvinism. This entailed far more than merely a commitment to the well-known and controversial “five points of Calvinism.” The Puritan vision of life and church was thoroughly and decidedly theocentric. The focus was on the sovereignty of God in all of life, his providential oversight of human history, and the majesty of his kingly rule.
(8) They typically placed an emphasis on the daily mortification of sin. The Puritans were remarkably disciplined. They kept diaries of their thoughts and actions. They would write an account of their day, what they had thought and why and what they had done and why. They would list their sins, ask forgiveness, and plot out the best way in which to avoid such sin tomorrow. This daily diary was a thankful statement of God's goodness as well as an acknowledgment of personal sin and failure.
(9) Packer again provides insight into their emphasis on an integrated view of life.
“As their Christianity was all-embracing, so their living was all of a piece. Nowadays we would call their lifestyle holistic: all awareness, activity, and enjoyment, all 'use of the creatures' and development of personal powers and creativity, was integrated in the single purpose of honouring God by appreciating all his gifts and making everything 'holiness to the Lord'. There was for them no disjunction between sacred and secular; all creation, so far as they were concerned, was sacred, and all activities, of whatever kind, must be sanctified, that is, done to the glory of God” (23-24).
(10) Finally, one finds among all Puritans a profound commitment to what they believed was true Scriptural worship. The Lutheran tradition, followed by Anglicanism, essentially allowed in worship whatever was not explicitly prohibited by Scripture, assuming of course that it was deemed effective and profitable. The Calvinist tradition, adopted by most Puritans, insisted that nothing was to be employed or practiced that did not have explicit biblical sanction.